affectivity authenticity

In Defense of Smiling

6:00:00 AMLiz Stein

We’ve all heard the well known saying; it takes less effort to smile than it does to frown. The world of the internet has recently been introduced to a British woman who seems to disagree. 
Tess Christian of London, England has created a buzz in by taking facial muscle preservation to the extreme. By building up a mastery of her facial expressions, she has given up smiling completely.  
This report definitely has shock value. Ms. Christian tells us that she began controlling her facial muscles about 40 years ago, and she has been pleased with her consistency ever since. Despite her unusual life-style choice, she did marry and give birth to a daughter. She says that while she was very happy at both of these events, she did not smile at either one. 
Tess isn’t shy about her odd conviction. She plainly explains that her intention behind smile-deprivation (never thought I’d use that term in a sentence) was to remain youthful and avoid wrinkles. She says:
“Yes, I am vain and want to remain youthful. My strategy is more natural than Botox and more effective than any expensive beauty cream or facial.”

Is it a little weird to nix smiling from your whole entire life? Sure. But at least she’s being honest.

I think that it’s one thing to look at this situation from a 
perspective which only recognizes the vanity behind the actions of Tess. That’s self-proclaimed, after all. But the conversation gets a whole lot more interesting when we explore the implications of smiling and the effects of smiling (or not smiling).

And so, on the subject of ‘smile-deprivation’, I’d like to propose a critique to Tess.

Now personally, I wouldn’t peg myself as one of those perpetually cheerful people. You know - the very positive person, the morning person, and so on.  In fact, I’ve been told that when I’m really quite peeved, I have mastered the art of the ‘death glare’. But all in all, I’d say that I pretty much experience the standard emotional roller-coaster ride of fluctuating highs and lows.

I could easily try to justify a negative attitude by telling myself that I’m just not one of those super cheerful people. It’s more of a personality thing. Its my character.

I mean, sometimes I feel happy and sometimes I feel sad. I wouldn’t say that I really take much notice of the physical arrangement of my muscles as they follow my mood. I just don’t really have time to be constantly concerned about what my face is projecting to those who see me. After all, sometimes I’m just having a bad day, or maybe I just want to be in a sour mood. If somebody doesn’t like it, they don’t have to look at me, right?

Not really.

Tess, what your story has brought up for me (rather uncomfortably so), is that like most post-modern individuals, typically I would pretty much concur with that kind of talk. It’s easy to trivialize the importance of our own body language, dismissing if or how our actions affect those around us, and frankly not caring either way.

But what if indifference about something as trivial as facial expressions is really still just plain old indifference? Or worse – what if it reveals an indifference for our fellow humans?

Nobody likes to have somebody’s bad mood projected on them. Nobody appreciates being frowned at, or even simply being ignored.

Our bodies speak the language of our inner self and intentions.

They don’t, however, always need to communicate our 
feelings. Just because we may feel very strongly a certain way certainly doesn’t make it appropriate to always act in accordance with those feelings.

My point is, just because we’re angry doesn’t mean we have to frown at someone, even if that might be the natural response that our feelings and emotions are begging us to give in to.

In fact, that’s one thing that can attach a certain value to smiling. If we view it as a little gift of self, that might give us some incentive and make it easier along the way. Take it from Mother Teresa of Calcutta -  perhaps the most relevant rebel of the postmodern self-oriented culture - when she says:

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”

But maybe in a certain respect, it’s not even about us. Maybe it’s just the right thing to do. Maybe smiling isn’t about our own personal disposition, or how much we may be suffering at a particular time.

If smiling were related to feelings alone, you wouldn’t find pictures of human beings looking joyful in situations which obviously don’t feel too great.

Smiling doesn’t have to be a natural inclination. 

Smiling can be a decision.

Although happiness may seem to be a feeling which comes 
and goes, joy can be a concrete choice made by anyone in any situation to embrace positivity and hope, rejecting the mediocrity and complacency of indifference.

This of course applies not only to the smile on your face, but to any outward expression of joy that you might be given the opportunity to express.

Obviously, physically smiling isn't always going to be called for. Joy doesn’t only reveal itself in a cheerful disposition, but in any display of authenticity and good-will. Regardless, it would be a shame to fall into that rut of numbness to the deepest inclinations of our heart and to your fellow man, where only a bleak expression can be produced, both spiritually and physically. Be human. 

Feel sincerely.

Think of smiling as you would any good or kind deed.

If smiling, then, is an act of service, a good deed, or simply an expression to others of our own vulnerability - a vulnerability which expresses the true intentions of our heart, and our sincere feelings (whether they be happy or sad) -  then not ‘smiling’ (indifference) is inward. It broods all sorts of demons, perhaps the least of which is vanity. Other negative side-effects include contagious discouragement, brooding self-pity, the victory of the self-centric, ego obsessed attitude, etc.

I’m not saying that suffering isn’t real, that tears and sorrow don't have their place in the human experience, or that we should smile or perform ‘good deeds’ with insincerity to mask painful feelings; rather, we should smile as an expression of love – a thing which presses on despite adversity, a transcendent and selfless quality which is too busy building up positivity to take notice of the wrinkles which may remain.

No one’s saying you should cheese it up all the time, (no one’s smile will look the same, that's the fun part about faces) but once in a while, try to step outside of yourself and shift your mouth muscles upward. 

Tess, a smile is not just a dispensable human activity. 

It's more than that. It's love. Smile at that stranger. Open up in honest and vulnerable authenticity to a good friend. Spread the joy to this weary, hurting world. Not only is it actually beneficial for your own mental, physical, and spiritual health, but it is being present to people. And that’s human.

To once again quote that wise little old woman from Calcutta:

“Let’s always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”


Liz Stein

In my free time, I enjoy watching YouTube videos of Pope Saint John Paul II, reading, singing, and the stars. I am proud to share a portion of my baptismal name with St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), because she is one of my heroes. In my post-collegiate life, I hope to be a teacher.


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